The town square of Valdosta, Georgia, a red-clay south Georgia community just above the Florida border, was packed with over five thousand men and women on September 23. Valdosta was a Democratic stronghold throughout the Great Depression, but the voters here began to leave in the 1960s when the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt became, in their eyes, the party of Martin Luther King. Twenty-four years ago, George Wallace, running as the candidate of the American Independent Party, won by an absolute majority in Lowndes County (which includes Valdosta), beating the combined vote cast for Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. In 1988, George Bush crushed Michael Dukakis here, winning 66 percent of the vote.
In the fall of 1992, however, Bill Clinton and Albert Gore attracted a crowd that jammed the plaza in front of City Hall. And most of those waving Clinton-Gore signs were white. While a film crew under the direction of Clinton’s “media consultant,” Frank Greer, made a tape for commercials to be shown in southern states, Clinton, his voice full of sarcasm, ridiculed Bush’s criticism of him. “One day I’m a redneck from a little southern state, the next day I’m an Oxford man. He went to country day schools, a prep school…and to Yale. Where does he get off looking up to me as an Oxford man? He got $300,000 from his daddy to start the family business.”
But what was perhaps most striking about Clinton’s speech is that he claimed credit for changing the “national Democratic Party” in a part of the country where the words “national Democratic Party” are understood as shorthand for a federal government that, during the 1960s and 1970s, promoted both racial integration and policies intended to shift income from the working and lower-middle class to the nonworking welfare poor.
I brought change to the Democratic Party. I challenged the Democratic Party, and we did change the Democratic Party. You read our platform. It says the best social program is a good job and a growing economy, and that is what we stand for. First time in a generation, the Democrats are running on their platform and the Republicans are running away from theirs.
Clinton may have overstated the revolution in his own party, but the 1992 presidential campaign has already produced one clear result: the Republican presidential coalition has been broken. The size of Clinton’s audience in the Valdosta town square was a sign of that. Neither Michael Dukakis nor Walter Mondale (nor George McGovern, nor Hubert Humphrey) would have even tried to hold a rally there.
George Bush could still come from behind to win the election, but the powerful conservative alliance, a virtually all-white coalition that dominated five of six presidential elections during the twenty years from 1968 to 1988, is no longer the driving force in national politics. The GOP is plagued by defections among three of its core constituencies—Reagan Democrats, suburbanites, and the young. The increasingly …